The Bay region received nearly $11 million to protect high-priority lands, mostly along the Bay and its rivers, in the federal spending bill approved by Congress in December.

That’s the largest amount of federal funding for land acquisition that the region has received in years, though it is only a third of what the Obama administration requested in its 2016 budget.

Nonetheless, land conservation advocates are optimistic the funding is the first step in what they hope will become a multi-year Rivers of the Chesapeake initiative aimed at protecting lands along the Potomac, Rappahannock, James, York, Nanticoke and Susquehanna rivers.

“We ought to really celebrate that,” said Joel Dunn, president of the nonprofit Chesapeake Conservancy. “That’s a big deal. But we have high aspirations for what we are trying to achieve here in the Chesapeake, and it is going to take a significant amount of money to do it.”

The $10.7 million for land acquisition comes from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Financed largely by royalties from offshore oil drilling, the fund has been the federal government’s primary source for land acquisition since it was created a half-century ago.

The Rivers of the Chesapeake initiative is one of several large-scale landscape conservation efforts that have been supported by the fund in recent years. The efforts are called large landscape collaboratives and are intended to use enhanced federal funding in target areas to attract state and nonprofit land conservation support to protect bigger tracts of the landscape than is normally the case.

“The idea here is that the federal agencies, state agencies, nonprofits all collaborate on a much bigger picture objective so that they can leverage each other’s dollars and take them further,” Dunn said. “The federal funds are really a catalyst.”

Although funding this year was less than hoped, Dunn said the region’s selection to receive the Collaborative Landscape funding showed “we’re a priority to the administration, to Congress. That our landscape received a significant portion of these land conservation dollars, out of all the regions of the country — I think it’s a big deal.” And, he said, it may improve the prospect for more federal funding in coming years.

The proposal had the bipartisan support of all of the governors in the watershed except New York’s. It was also supported by nine senators, 17 members of the House of Representatives, four American Indian tribes, 34 nonprofits and numerous local elected officials.

Projects included in the funding bill for the Rivers of the Chesapeake proposal include:

  • 42 acres at the Nanjemoy Natural Resource Management Area, MD;
  • 407 acres at the Meadowood Special Recreation Management Area, VA;
  • 392 acres at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, MD;
  • 160 acres at Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, VA;
  • 958 acres at George Washington-Jefferson National Forest, VA, WV;
  • 174 acres for trailheads along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, DC, DE, MD, PA, VA;
  • 1 acre at Piscataway Park, MD; and
  • 18 acres at Gettysburg National Military Park, PA.

All of the funded projects were identified in partnership with the states and local partners. Most of the properties are adjacent to lands already owned or protected through easements by the federal or state government or by land conservation groups.

Most of the sites are also along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, and will improve access to the trail.

Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who had helped secure the funding, said it would “help with jobs in the tourism industry by providing an engaging environment for residents and visitors, and it helps the environment by providing a complex habitat for many species.”

The $1.1 trillion spending bill also reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund for three more years. Its authorization expired Sept. 30 after Congress failed to pass a long-term extension for the program. The temporary extension will give lawmakers time to work out their differences.

The spending bill included $450 million for the LWCF this year, which was more than in recent years; but most of the increase went to states, which received half of the funding.

The fund is authorized to receive up to $900 million annually, but Congress has appropriated this amount only twice; most of the money from the royalties is diverted by Congress to other uses.

The Rivers of the Chesapeake initiative supports a goal of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement that calls for permanent protection for an additional 2 million acres of land, or 3,125 square miles, in the Bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed by 2025. It also supports a goal to add 300 public access points to the Bay and its rivers by that time.